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How Brains Balance Accuracy and Simplicity


Do you know what a penny looks like?  Of course you do.  If you’re an average American you have 993 of them sitting around somewhere at home.  Now, try this little experiment.  Without digging one out of your wallet or the “swear jar,”  draw the face of the penny on a piece of paper.

You probably can’t do it with much accuracy and many people will even get Lincoln’s face pointing the wrong direction (it should be pointing right).

Why is that?

Some insight comes from new research on how our brains interpret patterns.  A model developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania characterizes the brain as constantly balancing between accuracy and simplicity.  It takes a lot of mental energy to learn something accurately (like the face of a penny) so our brains won’t do that unless it is really necessary.  We can recognize a penny and know how to use it without being able to replicate the image precisely.

The model also supports the idea that our brains are not optimal learning machines – at least from the point of view of accuracy.  Making mistakes and learning from them is an essential part of how our brains operate.  Simplifying something, while it might lead to errors, gives our brains a better idea of the overall structure that allows us to predict and see relationships and connections.

The analogy the researchers use is standing near a pointillist painting and then stepping back from it.  Up close, it’s a bunch of dots.  Step back and it makes a coherent whole.

And it turns out that, for our brains, seeing the “big picture,” is really important.


Read about the Research

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